One Thousand Porches by Julie Dewey


This is a well-meaning book centred on the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium set up at Saranac Lake, New York, in the 1880s for the treatment of TB.  Unfortunately, much of the story makes very little sense.  There are “outbreaks” of TB, which see whole families suddenly wiped out, relatives put into quarantine, homes disinfected, the deceased’s possessions burnt, and people trying to avoid going out and about for fear of contagion.  That certainly fits with epidemics of many diseases in Victorian and Edwardian times, but not TB, which was endemic rather than epidemic.  People “test positive” for TB, as if it could be definitively diagnosed by one test.  Most bizarrely of all, a New York City doctor, circa 1905, advises a pregnant patient with a history of spinal TB to have an termination.  There’s no way that a doctor at that time would have given that advice, whatever his personal views.

The author’s clearly done a lot of research into life and treatment at the sanatorium (spelt “sanitarium” because it was more of a resort than a hospital, but that spelling annoys me for some reason, sorry!), but the rest of it is really rather odd.

And it’s told in the first person, but from the viewpoints of several different characters who all do their bits in the first person, which is even more confusing!

On the positive side, the details about life at this enormous sanatorium/sanatarium/resort is fascinating.  The title of the book comes from the porches in which patients would sit whilst resting in the open air.  We hear a lot about examinations and procedures, and a lot of detail about the food, and also about the fundraising efforts which raised money to enable poorer patients to be treated without payment.  The whole area became dominated by the sanatorium, and the site’s still there, a type of museum.

I’ve had this book on my Kindle for ages, and I can only assume that I got it because the blurb made me think about the sanatoria in the Chalet School books and Elsie Oxenham’s Swiss books!   But it’s important to remember just how rife TB was in Victorian times.  Here in Manchester and the surrounding towns, where you had a lot of people living close together, and a lot of people had lung issues anyway because of the cotton fly and the coal dust in the air, and the climate was, ahem, not the world’s driest, it was the number one killer.

There are better books about it than this, though.  It’s very odd that the author seems to have done so much research into some aspects of it, and yet others make no sense at all.

Lists – ten historical places in time I’d like to visit


This was a blog challenge idea, and it sounded so easy … but it wasn’t. I was originally going to try to tie it into particular books, but I didn’t get very far with that.  Would I really want to be caught up in the Siege of Atlanta, with or without Rhett Butler to help me escape?  Or in Russia in 1812, with everything being burned to stop the Grande Armee in its tracks?   Or negotiating the politics of the Tudor courts?   One of the balls in Jane Austen books would be a lot more peaceful, but I would very definitely be classed as “not handsome enough to tempt me“. Back to the drawing board.   Try just general places, without specific books.  And the first one has to be Victorian Manchester.  I’m so predictable, aren’t I?

1 – Victorian Manchester. Yes, I know all about the condition of the working-classes: I have read Engels’ book several times.  But this was a time of confidence, and belief, and hope.  This was a time when people believed they could change the world.  Peterloo (OK, that’s Georgian, not Victorian) – it was a tragedy, but it began with the genuine belief that people could win their rights.  The Chartists carried that on, and so did the Suffragettes.  The Anti Corn Law League, the whole campaign for free trade – we even named the Free Trade Hall after it!   The glorious buildings – to have the confidence to do that, even after the Cotton Famine.  The ideas of self-improvement and self-help, and the growth of the trade union movement.  That’s what the world’s missing now – the confidence that we can change things for the better, and getting out there and fighting for it.

And 9 more, in no particular order.

2 – Elizabethan England, again for that feeling of hope and confidence, moving on from the internal turmoil of the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation. Well, until it all went pear-shaped in Charles I’s time, but no-one would have seen that coming back in the Gloriana days.  The flourishing of culture, as well.  I can’t be doing with Shakespeare, but he does symbolise the English Renaissance.  Yes, I know that the Elizabethan Age gets rather mythologised, but you can’t have myths unless you’ve got something to start with.

3 – Venice in the 18th century. I was going to say the Renaissance, but I’m not an arty person, for one thing, and Renaissance Italy involved too much fighting and political chaos and religious intolerance.  Venice in the 18th century, all that grandeur and glamour and elegance, would be a much better bet.  I’ve even got Carnevale masks: I wore them when I went to the Venice Carnival for my, ahem, “significant” birthday in 2015.

4 – Vienna in the late 19th century.  Music and waltzing, literature and philosophy.  I quite fancy the idea of sitting in a Viennese coffee house, exchanging ideas with great minds … who would probably think I was talking a load of utter rubbish and be totally unimpressed with my support for Slavic nationalists. But still.

5 – The Caliphate of Cordoba. OK, this is another one that’s probably been mythologised into a lot more of a Golden Age than it actually was, but there is certainly something in the idea of La Convivencia, the flourishing of Christian and Jewish and Islamic culture together.  We’ve come so far from that, and sometimes it seems as if we’re getting further away from it rather than getting closer towards it again.

6 – I’ve got to have Russia in here somewhere!   I want to be a romantic Slavophile.  I want to walk around wearing a red sarafan (I have actually worn one once) and go on about mysticism and melancholy and the “going to the people” and peasant communes.  Er, except that most of that is romantic rubbish.  I could be a noble in St Petersburg, but that really doesn’t work at all with being a romantic Slavophile.  Oh dear.  I’m going to have to be a revolutionary instead, aren’t I?

7 – The Lake District in the time of the Romantic poets. Hooray – I can get away with Romanticism in this one!   Maybe I could stay with Wordsworth in Grasmere?

8 – I’ve got to have America in here somewhere, as well, but it’s a bit difficult to say that I actually want to be there during “my” period of American history, the 1840s to the 1870s. The Twelve Oaks barbecue does sound like good fun, until war gets declared in the middle of it, but, quite apart from the fact that, as with a Jane Austen ball, I’d be the person no-one wanted to sit with or dance with, it’s a slaveholding society and I just couldn’t be there.  No – it’s going to have to be the American Dream, the immigrants sailing into New York and hoping that they’re going to find that the streets are paved with gold.  OK, it’d probably mean ending up doing backbreaking work in horrible conditions, but, again, it’s that feeling of hope, that belief, that you can make the world a better place and be part of it.

9 – India with Gandhi. I normally refuse to class anything later than the First World War as “history”, but I watched the Gandhi film again recently, and I’ve been reading up on Indian history, and … that incredible idea that you can bring about change by non-violent civil resistance, and the hope – even if it did turn out to be futile – of religious tolerance and co-operation.  There are a lot of groups of people now who have little hope – the Rohingyas spring to mind – but what an inspiration that time was.

10 – Do you know what, I actually do want to go to a Jane Austen era ball? I’d get over no-one wanting to dance with me!   At least the clothes of the time were fairly loose, so I wouldn’t look as fat in them as I would in clothes from some other time periods.  I like that idea of the county society in Jane Austen books, that you did get invited to parties and balls as a matter of course, and weren’t sat at home wondering how you’d get to meet new people.  I am absolutely useless at social occasions and would probably have hated it all in practice, but I do like the idea in theory.  I mean, Mary Bennet does seem to enjoy the balls, doesn’t she, even though everyone thinks she’s weird?  I like the idea of visiting spa towns and “taking the waters” as well.

I just wish I could match all these times and places up to books! But most of the best historical fiction’s set against a background of war and turmoil.  Is that because it appeals to authors, it appeals to readers, or it appeals to me?  And, if anyone’s reading this, please tell me when and where you’d like to go, and if any of our ideas match.  If they do, maybe we can build a time machine and go there together 🙂 .

Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border – BBC 2


Donald Trump’s bizarre obsession with building walls has given Reginald D Hunter an excuse for a road trip along the US-Mexican border and me an excuse to write about a) the Mexican War and b) how lovely San Antonio is.  This programme, far more political than musical, also reminded me about being made to learn The Streets of Laredo in primary school singing lessons.  How weird is that?  Why get a load of little kids in a North of England primary school to learn a song about dying cowboys?!   Anyway, back to the point, which was that, whatever may go on with Mr Trump and his bonkers ideas, music knows no borders, certainly not between northern Mexico and the south western United States.

I’m afraid that most of the musical references in this went over my head.  I’m not sure what I was expecting.  Fernando and Ride Like The Wind?  Just kidding – not really!  I was OK when he was talking about Ricky Martin (who’s actually from Puerto Rico) and Lou Bega (who’s actually German).  And obviously I recognised the song they played at the end, sung by one of the most famous Mexican-Americans of all time – La Bamba, by Ritchie Valens (even if I do associate it with the diner in Grease).  I think I do vaguely remember hearing about Selena, the Mexican-American singer tragically murdered in the 1990s.  But there were a lot of terms I’d never heard before.  Maybe I’m just really ignorant 😦 !  Well, I never claimed to be an expert on world music, did I?!

I now know that narcocorrido songs are ballads about drug dealers.  Nobody tell Donald Trump that, please: he’d be making all sorts of horrendous stereotypes out of it, whereas the style of music actually originates from folk music, and evolved via the norteno-corrido style of ballad that was more about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 – Pancho Villa et al.  I also know that cumbia is not a misspelling of a region of Northern England but is a form of Columbian music.  And that mariachi is a form of Western Mexican music.  According to Wikipedia, being able to play mariachi gave you a good chance of getting a job at a hacienda.  No, not the Hacienda, but an estate in colonial Mexico.

And conjunto, which sounds like something to do with either Juan Peron or the Napoleonic Wars, is a form of music played by small groups – and this is particularly interesting, because it originates in a unique form of Tex-Mex cultural crossover, involving German button accordions.  A lot of Germans settled in Fredericksburg, Texas (not to be confused with Fredericksburg in Virginia, site of the famous battle in 1862), and it still has a strongly German feel to it.  I went there in October (2014), and they were having an Oktoberfest.  The Oktoberfest idea is Bavarian, and the Fredericksburg settlers were mainly from Prussia, but you get the idea.  Loads of German bakeries, as well.  Germans also settled in Mexico (it’s OK, I’m not going to write an essay on the Austrian involvement there in the 1860s), and a lot of those settlers then moved into South Texas at the time of the Mexican Revolution.  There’s always been a lot of that to-ing and fro-ing across the border, and that was the point that Reginald D Hunter was making.

I’m not very keen on Reginald D Hunter, TBH.  I find him quite aggressive and polemical, and it sometimes seems as if he’s deliberately setting out to rile people.  For example, in the middle of this programme, he randomly started ranting about Tennessee being full of “redneck racists”. But he did make some very good points about the culture of the border area, and how the border is fluid as far as that culture goes.

He visited El Paso (Texas), where he talked to local musicians about some of the older-style border songs which present Mexicans as baddies and or involve a lot of sentimentality about doomed romances between Anglo-American men and Mexican women, and also visited Ciudad Juarez (Mexico), where there was a lot of talk about drug cartels.  In both places, people talked about frequently crossing the border to visit relatives who, legally or illegally, live on the other side.  I haven’t been to either of those places, but he said that he felt that San Antonio, although it’s not actually on the border, was the cultural capital of the border area; and that was certainly the impression that I got.

I loved San Antonio.  I’d love to go again.  What an absolutely gorgeous place.   As I said, I was in Texas in an October – and so all the preparations for the Day of the Dead were taking place.  I’d never come across that before, and I was fascinated by it.  And it’s a Mexican thing.  As Hunter said, when you’re in San Antonio, you’re not always entirely sure whether you’re in the United States or whether you’re in Mexico!  Nearly all the signs are in both English and Spanish.  I even spoke to people in Spanish a few times, whilst I was there.

San Antonio was one of the two main reasons that I wanted to go to Texas.  I wanted to see the Alamo.  We got to the hotel late afternoon, and I stopped for about five minutes to have a glass of water and dump my bags, then opened the map and bounded off to the Alamo.  It was next door to a Haagen Dazs café, which was a bit odd, but never mind.  We did go there on a proper guided tour later on, but I had to see it as soon as I’d arrived.  I’m a historian, OK!  And 19th century America is one of my specialist topics.  I was excited!

Just as a slight aside, the other main reason I wanted to go to Texas wasn’t the space centre in Houston (it was interesting enough, but I’m not a sciency person) – it was Southfork.  To quote Abba, “there’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see”.  I actually preferred Dynasty, but I loved Dallas as well.  Now, when the 2012 Dallas reboot (which sadly didn’t last long) was made, the main female character, who had affairs with both John Ross Ewing and Christopher Ewing (who also both had affairs with another woman, who turned out to be the secret daughter of Cliff Barnes) was someone who’d been born in Mexico and had emigrated from there to Texas as a child.  Even in a TV series, you can’t show Texas without showing the Mexican connection.

So.  Texas.  The “Six Flags” state – Spain, France (briefly), Mexico, the Texas Republic, the Union and the Confederacy.  When you visit the Alamo, you have to dress and behave as if you were visiting a place of worship.  It’s regarded as a sacred place.  To cut a long story short, a lot of  “Anglos” from America had settled in Mexican Texas, and, with discontent rising over the rule of President Santa Anna, Texas rebelled.  The siege of the Alamo, in 1836, although it wasn’t the decisive battle of the revolution, is the best-known.  Bowie knives, Davy Crockett hats, songs, films, etc.  An independent republic of Texas was set up – and, in 1845, serious moves began to annex it to the United States.  Most people in Texas do seem to have wanted this – the opposition came more from America, where people were concerned about what adding another big slave state to the Union was going to do to the fragile balance between slave states and free states – and, in 1846, it went ahead.

Mexico, which had never recognised Texan independence, wasn’t very pleased, and the Mexican-American War, generally known as the Mexican War, broke out.  I’ve been reading up on the Mexican War since I was 11, because it features heavily in North and South, the first book of the wonderful trilogy by John Jakes.  One of the main characters, played in the TV adaptation by the late, great, Patrick Swayze, loses an arm in the war, and has to give up his plans for a career in the Army.  OK, this has got nothing to do with music, but neither did most of what Hunter was saying: he was far more concerned with slagging off Donald Trump, and having a go at Barack Obama and Bill Clinton whilst he was at it, than in actually talking about songs of the border, or songs of anywhere else for that matter!

Despite the sad loss of Orry Main’s arm (I love those books), America won the war, and helped herself to not only Texas but also what’s now Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, part of New Mexico, a bit of Wyoming, and the vast state of California (where gold was soon discovered – war ended in 1848, Gold Rush in 1849, admitted to the Union, as a free state, in 1850.  My Darling Clementine, not being a border song, did not get mentioned.). The rest of New Mexico and Arizona was bought in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.  At least that bit was paid for.

So that whole area was Mexican long before it was American.  And, no, I’m not forgetting the Native Americans, but Native American culture didn’t really come into this programme.  There was a lot of movement across the border … well, even before Mexico was independent of Spain.  You weren’t supposed to settle in Texas in those days unless you were Catholic – like you weren’t supposed to settle in Savannah, Georgia, in the days when neighbouring Florida was under Spanish rule, unless you were Protestant or Jewish and definitely not Catholic – but people got round that!   And there’s been a lot of movement across the border ever since.  It’s an ongoing story – it’s about history going back many years – as with, say, the Cajun culture of Louisiana – and it’s about today, and it’s about everything in between.

Mexican immigration into the United States was actively encouraged during and immediately after the war years.  It isn’t now, but it’s still going on – and, as we all know, there’s no effective regulation of it.  This has both positive aspects and negative aspects.  There are a lot of issues with undocumented immigration, including the fact that unregistered immigrants are at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, and may struggle to get access to essential services.  There are undoubtedly some problems with cross-border drug smuggling.  There’s the issue of the importance of Mexican workers in the labour market in the border states.

And, as the programme kept pointing out, it’s not just a case of Mexicans going to Txas or other parts of the US and staying there.  It’s people going backwards and forwards across the border on a regular basis.  The programme was meant to be about the border being fluid in terms of music, and it did make that point, but it was also about the border being fluid in terms of the movement of people.   And it is.  Plenty of the people interviewed made that clear.  Some of that’s legal visiting.  Some of that’s illegal working.  It’s a complex situation.

There are two issues here.  One is Mexican-American culture.  Hyphenated American cultures are great.  That shouldn’t be a problem.  It’s only a problem in that there are some negative images about it.  Donald Trump’s unpleasant remarks about Mexicans tie in with those, and don’t help anyone – and it’s highly inappropriate for someone in high office to be coming out with things like that.  The other issue is immigration in general and the regulation of it.  That’s another story, and a controversial one.  But, come what may, there is this cross-border culture, much of it tied up in music.  And that makes the wall idea sound even stupider than it does anyway.

There’s so much history in music, and there’s a fair bit of music in history.  I don’t think Reginald D Hunter really wanted to talk about music.  He just wanted to have a go at American immigration policy, and this was a way of doing it.  But there was some interesting information about music in this, and interesting information about the cross-border culture in general.  And, hey, it’s given me an excuse to write a bit about the Mexican War.

I still don’t know why we had to sing The Streets of Laredo at primary school, though …

The Laura Ingalls Wilder debate


Earlier this week, the American Association for Library Services to Children announced that its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was to be renamed as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.  “This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness” – referring to the depiction of Native American and black people in her books, notably in Little House on the Prairie.

My copy of Little House on the Prairie is falling to pieces, because it’s been read so often.  The publishing information page informs me that the book was first published in the US in 1935, was first published in the UK in 1937, and was first published by Puffin in 1964 – and that it had been reprinted pretty much every year since 1964, sometimes as much as four times in a year.  That says a lot about how popular it was.  The last re-publication date given is 1981, so my copy must have been bought in either late 1981 or early 1982.  So I’d have first read it when I was either six or just turned seven.  At that age, you probably don’t really question the rights and wrongs of what you’re reading: you just accept it.  That does create particular problems over what it is and isn’t OK for children’s books to say.

Prejudice as written about in children’s books can be a useful tool for explanation and understanding.  One of our set books in the second year of secondary school was Through The Barricades, Joan Lingard’s book about a romance between a Protestant girl and a Catholic boy in 1970s Belfast.  Several characters in that book make very disparaging comments about the other community.  But, when you’re reading a book at school (although I’d read it myself, years before), you’re doing so with an eye to discussion.  That’s not necessarily the case when a child is reading a book on his or her own.  And, by the age of twelve or thirteen, people are better able to judge and question what they read in books than at the age of six or seven.

It does need to be noted that all they’ve done is rename an award.  The books are not being banned.  It’s highly unlikely that they’ll go out of print – if anything, the publicity from all this might get more people buying them.  However, this decision is part of a wider cultural debate, in the United States, here in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, about the issue of views which were considered acceptable in the cultures of those holding them at the time at which they lived and worked, but aren’t now, and that’s partly why it’s attracting so much attention.

It does seem to be getting out of hand.  What next?  Rename Washington DC because George Washington owned slaves?  Remove the name of Shakespeare from any public building or organization because Othello and Shylock are offensive stereotypes?  Pulling down the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square’s been suggested already!   So has renaming the various schools, streets and buildings in Bristol named after Edward Colston, a philanthropist but also a slave trader.  Confederate monuments in various southern states have been removed, because many people insist that the Confederacy was all about slavery and won’t take into account, or don’t consider important, the fact that it was also about states’ rights.  There’ve even been objections to screenings of Gone With The Wind, the greatest film ever made (from the greatest book ever written), because its views on race are those of wealthy Southerners in the 1860s and 1870s, when it’s set, not of people in the 2010s. And pretty much every single person who lived in Europe in the Middle Ages is, by these standards, to be condemned for lack of religious tolerance.  And, if we’re talking about tolerance, don’t even go there when talking about the Bible.

On the other hand … I found it rather strange seeing the huge statue of Bohdan Khmelnystky, who’s regarded as a hero in Ukraine but whom I think of as being responsible for mass murder, in the middle of St Sophia’s Square in Kyiv.  And I can’t remember reading any articles in the Western press criticising people in the former Soviet Union for pulling down statues of Stalin.  Imagine how it’d feel to see a statue of Hitler, and, if you objected, be told that he was the democratically elected Chancellor of Germany, that Austria voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Anschluss, and that removing it would be an Orwellian rewriting of history.  This whole issue is a very difficult one: there are no easy answers.

Most people, hopefully, would not dream of arguing that racism or other forms of prejudice are acceptable.  The issue is the one of the Orwellian rewriting of history.  It would be ridiculous to have Scarlett O’Hara, Melanie Hamilton and co speaking out about the need for racial equality, or Jane Eyre telling St John Rivers that she had no intention of becoming a missionary in India because Islam and Hinduism were just as valid as Christianity, the various snooty kids in Enid Blyton books accepting working-class children into their gangs, or indeed Antonio and Portia accepting Jewish merchants of Venice as being equal to Catholic ones.   In fact, pretending that these views never existed in the past would be a downright insult to all the people over the years who’ve battled against them, and continue to do so.  It wouldn’t be possible to do that even if people wanted to.  How can you tell American history without talking about white settlers driving out Native Americans?  Not only would it be impossible, it would be very, very wrong.

So what’s the answer?  If you’re telling the story in the form of a novel, you’re going to have at least some of your characters expressing the views that were commonly held at that time and in that place.  That’s what happens in Little House on the Prairie.  So what is actually said that’s caused offence?

The main issues involve Native Americans, although concerns have also been raised about attitudes in the books towards African-American people.  The only black character in Little House on the Prairie is Dr Tan, who treats the Ingalls family when they’re suffering from malaria.  Laura says that she’d never seen a black person before, and would have been scared of him had she not liked him so much.  I can’t see that there’s anything objectionable about that: young children can be scared of any sort of difference, and it’s made clear that he’s a good person and a good doctor.  And a doctor is hardly a negative stereotype.

 However, there’s the issue of the black and white minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie, which involves Pa Ingalls and a number of other white men “blacking up”, i.e. using “blackface” make-up.  One of my great-great-great uncles was a Victorian music hall ventriloquist.  This amuses me greatly: most of my relations are listed on the census reports as working in factories or shops.  He was famous, in music hall circles, for presenting a ventriloquism show involving eight dummies done up as black and white minstrels.  OK, that’s not quite the same thing, because using a black dummy isn’t the same as a white person “blacking up” with make-up, but the point is that black and white minstrel shows were a common form of entertainment in Victorian times.  Never mind Victorian times – the BBC was still showing a weekly black and white minstrel show in the 1970s.  It wasn’t axed until 1978.  1978!  It’s hard to believe that, but it’s true.  And, at the time of Laura’s childhood, even black performers would sometimes wear blackface make-up.

But shows of that sort are now considered highly offensive.  Many of them showed black characters as being unintelligent and figures of fun.  There was some criticism of them even in Victorian times.  I don’t think that actually comes across much in Laura’s book, because the focus is on music and dancing, but it’s a question of that whole genre of “entertainment”.  And there’s also the question of the use of the word “darky”, now considered extremely offensive (in English, not necessarily in South American Spanish, but that’s another story).  Language changes, and the word would have been in common use in the 1870s, although maybe less so by the 1930s, but the word certainly isn’t acceptable now.  What if a young child were to read that word and repeat it in public?  As a kid, you’re not to know that a word in a book isn’t to be used.  But is changing the language in a book rewriting history and culture?  There are just no easy answers here.

Whilst black people feature very little in the books, Osage Native Americans and the attitude of white people towards them feature prominently in Little House on the Prairie (it is mainly just that one book in the series), during which the Ingalls family illegally build a house in a part of Kansas which is under Osage ownership but which they believe will soon be opened up to homesteaders.

And, as I said, I first read Little House on the Prairie when I was six or seven.  Fast forward to December 1986, by which time I was eleven, had read all the “Little House” books a million times (although, strangely, I never watched the TV series), and thought I was very grown up because I’d started reading “grown up” books.  The first one I read was A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford – how 1980s blockbuster-ish is that?!  Another early one was North and South by John Jakes, after watching the superb TV series starring the late, great Patrick Swayze.  After that, I started reading up on the American Civil War, the events leading up to it, and Reconstruction, big style, and I’ve never stopped.  So, if you ask me about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, I will launch into a very long spiel about popular sovereignty, free soil, border ruffians, the expansion of slavery, the Lecompton Constitution, Bleeding Kansas, Preston Brook hitting Charles Sumner with his cane and all the rest of it.  So, I suspect, would most people.  It is generally seen as a step along the road to the war.  However, it also led to large numbers of would-be settlers flooding into Kansas.

The Osage Nation had already been pushed out of many of their ancestral lands, into south eastern Kansas.  Now that area too saw an influx of white settlers and, during the war, both sides seemed to think that it was perfectly OK to steal horses and supplies from the Osage.  To try to get the Confederates to leave them alone, they made a treaty with them.  After the war, this was used as an excuse to force them to cede even more land to the Union, and they were pushed into “Indian Territory” – roughly speaking, Oklahoma – in 1870.  The Ingalls family moved to south eastern Kansas in 1868, whilst even the United States government recognized that it was still under Osage control.

There are various theories about what entitles people to own land.  Mrs Scott, a character in the book, says that people who settle and work on land should be entitled to own it.  Apparently this theory was developed by John Locke.  The only book by John Locke that I’ve ever read was Two Treatises of Government.  That was twenty five years ago.  It was so boring that I’ve never read anything else by him, nor do I ever intend to.   Anyway, those theories are irrelevant: the land was legally recognised, by the government of the country to which the Ingalls and Scott families belonged, as being owned by the Osage.  There’s some confusion over whether or not they realised that they were just the wrong side of a dividing line, but they didn’t really care.

Manifest Destiny.  Go west, young man, go west.  The destiny, the right, of white, and preferably Protestant, Americans to settle from sea to shining sea.  All this.  I don’t mean this in any sort of anti-American way: the US is hardly the only country where attitudes like that existed.  And, alongside Manifest Destiny went the idea of “Indian removal”.  And negative ideas towards Native Americans generally.  The first editions of the book infamously stated that “there were no people there, only Indians”.  This was later changed to “there were no settlers there, only Indians”, but you get the idea.  Native Americans being seen as less than people.  There’s a bizarre scene in which young Laura sees some Native Americans riding past, including a mother with a baby, and wants Pa to go and “get” the baby for her, because she thinks the baby’s cute and wants to keep him/her.  It’s very strange.

The Osage characters get no actual voice in the books: they don’t speak English, and the Americans don’t speak Osage, so, with it being told from Laura’s viewpoint, there’s no means of her understanding them.  One of the Osage chiefs, named as Soldat du Chene and said to have prevented a massacre of settlers, speaks French, but Laura doesn’t.  So we don’t get their viewpoint at all.  On two occasions, Osage men, described as “wild”, come into the Ingalls family house whilst Pa is out and Ma is in with the three children.  They demand cornbread and, on one occasion, steal tobacco.  So the portrayal of them is certainly very negative – and that, it has to be said, probably in line with most white Americans’ views at the time.   But this was Laura’s experience, and she was writing about her experience.

We do, however, get different views expressed by different white American characters.  There isn’t really a narrative: the narrative is what Laura’s thinking.  So, I suppose, the narrative is the author’s voice, although it’s adult Laura writing about child Laura.  Or is it actually Laura at all? – it’s known that a lot of the work on the books was actually done by Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Oh well, that’s academic: if you’re going to look at it like that, then “Laura Ingalls Wilder” the author is a combination of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself and Rose Wilder Lane!   But the lack of a narrative other than the voice of a character means that the author’s own views don’t come across, as they do in some books.  Unless we take the thoughts of Laura the child to be those of the author.  I’m tying myself in knots here!   But, in some books, it’s clear that the author does not agree with those expressed by the characters.   Another way in which authors, especially children’s authors, do that is to have the “bad” views expressed by characters whom the reader is meant to dislike.  That doesn’t happen here either.

The books infamously use the expression “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  In Little House on the Prairie, it’s used by the family’s neighbours, Mr and Mrs Scott.  Mrs Scott in particular is very vehement in her dislike of Native Americans.  It’s explained that this is because her family came close to being caught up in the “Minnesota Massacres” – i.e. the Dakota War of 1862, when the Dakota (Sioux) attacked white settlers, and the United States army then took hundreds of Dakota prisoner and hanged thirty eight of them, the largest mass hanging in US history.  I’m quite sure that, as a six or seven year old, I didn’t have the remotest clue what had happened in 1862, but I suppose I’d have picked up on the fact that something bad had happened and that that had made Mrs Scott feel as she did.  Nothing excuses the prejudice expressed in the book, but it is made clear that Mrs Scott’s feelings are not just blind prejudice.

The one who does express blind prejudice is Ma Ingalls, a character whom we are usually meant to admire – and these presumably were the views of Caroline Quiner Ingalls, as expressed to Laura.  That, of course, is an additional issue: although the books aren’t an accurate reflection of what happened, the characters in them were real people, and the views are theirs, not views put into their heads and mouths by the author.  Ma says that she doesn’t “like Indians”, but doesn’t explain why: in fact, she follows it up by telling Laura off for licking molasses off her fingers, which rather makes it clear that she doesn’t think that what she’s said is a big deal.  Laura asks why Ma doesn’t like “Indians”, but doesn’t get an answer.

Pa Ingalls, on the other hand, repeatedly says, both to other family members and to their neighbours, the Scotts and Mr Edwards, that he doesn’t think badly of “Indians”.  He speaks of them quite respectfully.  That, however, doesn’t stop him from thinking that it’s OK to take their land.  He tells Laura that “Indians” go west when white settlers come, as if that’s a natural process.   Laura tries to say that this must surely make them “mad”, but she doesn’t get an answer.  But she’s asking the question, just as she wanted to know why Ma felt as she did.

It’s actually quite profound for a book aimed at such young children.  Different characters, none of whom are “baddies”, express contrasting views.  Questions are asked, but not answered.

A couple of years ago, on the lookout for free Kindle books set in South America, I made the mistake of downloading a “boys’ own” type book by R M Ballantyne, published in 1884.  Bloody hell.  It was pretty much unreadable, because of the way that the black characters were portrayed.  I feel uncomfortable just thinking about it.

Laura’s books aren’t like that.  And they tell important tales about the history of the American pioneers.

But they have characters saying that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  And using words like “darky”.

So what’s the answer?  What’s the question, in fact?  Is it whether we should condemn people who lived in the past for holding views that were widespread in that time and in that place?  Is it whether, if we do, we should be erasing those people from our own world?  Is it whether Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are offensive?  Is it whether children should be being encouraged to read them?

Well, no, it’s not very fair to condemn people who lived in a different time and place for holding views that aren’t acceptable now but were then.  And, yes, whilst the attitudes in the book aren’t as one-sided as has perhaps made out, there certainly are things in the books that are offensive – and these are books aimed at young children, who probably won’t realise that those views are offensive and unacceptable.  But we can’t have books in which characters don’t express the views of the time and place they’re in.

The best answer to any of this is probably the one that the young Laura gives us – that you shouldn’t accept other people’s views without questioning.  Then explanations can be given, at an age appropriate level, of the wrongs of the past.  But that relies on children asking.  And adults answering.

I’d be interested to see an opinion poll – in the US, I mean – on that, because I think the only answer to the question of whether or not the award should have been renamed is whether or not that’s what a majority of Americans think is right.   These are difficult questions, and more and more of them are likely to arise in the near future.

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz


I think I liked this book.  Yes, I did like it.  It’s … unusual.  It’s a “young adult” “coming of age” (apologies for use of clichés) book, set in 1911, written as a diary, about Joan, a 14-year-old girl who runs away from her family farm in Pennsylvania to become a “hired girl” in Baltimore.  In a lot of ways it’s a pastiche of late Victorian/Edwardian girls’ books, but it couldn’t have been written at that time.  I was going to say Anne of Green Gables crossed with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, but a) it’s not actually as good as either of those, b) it’s about a girl who works as a housemaid and c) neither Anne nor Margaret are ever as silly as Joan is sometimes.  But along those lines.  Maybe a slight touch of A Woman of Substance too: I certainly can’t see Joan ending up as one of the richest women in the world, but there’s that sense of wanting to seem a bit more elegant and refined than her work allows.  And the prattling’s reminiscent of Angela’s Ashes. It’s really mean to keep comparing a book with other books, isn’t it?  I’m just trying to give some sense of it, because it is an unusual combination. And I get that thing about writing lists mid-sentence from Daddy Long Legs, whilst I’m on the subject of “young adult” books!

Other books do get mentioned a lot.  The main character, Joan Skraggs, who changes her name to Janet Lovelace when she runs away, is very keen on Jane Eyre, and to a lesser extent Ivanhoe and Dombey and Son, and is eager to find parallels between events in her life and events in books.  Yep, I used to do that when I was 14!  I still do, sometimes.  Not that anything very exciting happened when I was 14, but never mind.   So you get the idea that, like Anne Shirley, she’s got a vivid imagination and gets carried away with things!   But she isn’t able to do that at home.  There’s no Lake of Shining Waters or anything else there, just a father who, with her mother having died, expects her to do all the housework for him and her three brothers, and doesn’t want her to continue her education, even by reading at home.  When she rebels, her father burns her three beloved books, which had been given to her by a teacher, and she runs away to Baltimore, where she pretends to be 18 and gets a job as a hired girl/maid in the home of the well-to-do middle-class Rosenbach family.

I read some reviews on Amazon before I bought this, and not one of them had said anything about having someone trying to “better” herself by taking a job as a servant.  Am I being Terribly British here?   I mean, the term “hired girl” seemed odd to me, because that term is not used in British English: we would say that she was working as a maid.  It makes perfect sense that Joan feels she will have more opportunities doing paid domestic work for a third party, especially in a city, than she will doing unpaid domestic work on her family’s farm, but, snobbery aside – you would never in a million years have got one of the March girls, or even one of the Ingalls girls, or, once she’d got settled with the Cuthberts, Anne Shirley, taking a job as a maid – having a family farm is an American Dream.  She gives up being part of a family farm to become someone else’s servant.  But I can see how it means more independence and more opportunities for her.  Does that mean that the American Dream was a Man Thing, apart from a few exceptional women, like Eliza Jane Wilder, who had their own land?   Am I just totally overthinking this?  Yes, probably.  I overthink most things.

The Rosenbachs, on the other hand, are living the American Dream.  Mr Rosenbach, the head of the household, is the son of a German Jewish immigrant – a very large number of people, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, came to Baltimore from Germany in the early to mid 19th century – and now owns a large department store.  He encourages Joan/Janet to read, lets her borrow the books in his library, and wishes that his own daughter Mimi was as keen to read as she is.  It’s not the usual master-servant relationship but, on the other hand, it’s a very Victorian middle-class (yes, I know that 1911 is not “Victorian”!) idea of encouraging self-improvement.  Central to the book are Joan’s relationships with the various members of the household – Mr Rosenbach, his wife, his two sons, his young daughter, his married daughter, and their housekeeper.

There is quite a lot of religion in this.  It’s OK, it’s not one of those Frightfully Pi old-style American girls’ books! Joan is not Elsie Dinsmore!  And she isn’t even someone like Jo March or Laura Ingalls, for whom religion is such an intrinsic part of their lives that they never really question it.  She classes herself as a Catholic, like her mother – her father is a Protestant – but has never had much religious education and has never been confirmed.  She’s keen to be a practising Catholic, and begins attending church and taking instruction, but she never just accepts what she’s told: she does think about it.

Then there’s the fact that we’ve got a Catholic girl working in a Jewish household, and the issues surrounding religion within the household.  I’m not quite convinced that a family who are so concerned about keeping kosher that they have separate meat and milk sinks would think it looked good to serve oyster patties at a bridge evening – I get that oyster patties are posh, but I just don’t find it very realistic – but the idea was to show the tension, which you get with any second generation immigrant family between the ideas of the Old Country and wanting to move onwards and upwards in the new country.  Interestingly, it’s the eldest son who wanted to stick with tradition.  With second and third generations, you generally find that the older generation wants to stick with tradition and it’s the younger generation which doesn’t.  With the Rosenbachs, the eldest son wants to go to a yeshiva and study Jewish religious stuff, instead of working in the family business.

He also wants to marry a girl from a Polish Jewish immigrant family, and that – the class and social differences between a Jewish family whose ancestors had moved to America from Germany in the early to mid 19th century and a Jewish family whose ancestors had moved to America from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century – is very rarely explored in books.  I was going to say Evergreen, but that doesn’t really work because the Werners’ background was all a bit complicated … I forget the details, but I think Sephardi ancestors from New Orleans were involved somewhere!

So, yes, there’s a lot of religious stuff, but it’s done in an unusual way.  And, for anyone who isn’t familiar with the laws of kashrut and wants to learn, here is your chance!   We hear everything that Malka, the traditionally-minded, Yiddish-speaking Jewish housekeeper, teaches Joan about keeping a kosher kitchen.  We also get a lot of potato kugels and lokshen puddings.

There’s one awkward bit, when Joan decides that she should try to preach the “true faith” to the Rosenbachs’ young grandson, and Mrs Rosenbach isn’t very pleased, but they get past it.  There are actually a lot of awkward bits involving Joan and various family members, notably when she tries to matchmake between the eldest son and a girl she thinks he likes; and it’s amazing that she never gets sacked, but that would have ruined the story!   She also becomes romantically involved with the younger son, who, like his brother, isn’t interested in the family business, but, unlike his brother, is an arty type who wants Joan to model for some paintings (not those sort of paintings – they’re all clothes on!).

OK, you always get a romance in a coming of age story, but I felt uncomfortable with this because he, a young man in his early 20s, thought that she was 18.  OK, there would still have been the class and religious differences, but there’s no sense that he’s the sort of man who’d have gone after a 14-year-old, and I just found it … well, as I said, uncomfortable.  It never goes beyond kissing, but even so.  Joan does prattle on a lot, and the reader could never think that she was much older than 18.  And she convinces herself that one kiss means that they’re getting married.  Somehow, however silly it obviously is, that comes across convincingly, and you do end up feeling sorry for her when she’s inevitably disappointed.   That’s when it all comes out, that she’s only 14.

Then it ends on a very Victorian self-improvement note.  Am I being really Lancastrian with the Victorian self-improvement thing?!  Mind you, Samuel Smiles was Scottish.  And quotes from Invictus, no less.  And all rather feminist.

It’s unfortunate that, especially given that it ticks the diversity boxes (and apparently we’re all supposed to be very keen for new books to do that) in terms of religion and indeed in terms of feminism – Joan might be rather silly, but she’s determined to continue her education, and she’s determined that she’s not just going to do what the men in her family say – there’s been some controversy over this book, because of this bit. “It seemed to me–I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then–as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilised now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.”

It’s one paragraph, and there is nothing else anywhere in the book about Native Americans, but the use of the word “civilised” has sparked off a lot of controversy.  This is a really difficult area.  It is a fact that many, probably the majority, of people in 1911, and before then, and indeed long after then, held views on race, religion, gender, sexuality and class which would offend most people today.  That has to be reflected in books set in the past.  It would just be silly to have a member of the plantation aristocracy in the antebellum Deep South calling for racial equality, a grandee in 16th century Castile speaking in favour of religious toleration, or even a Victorian factory worker demanding that women be paid the same as men.  It would actually be offensive in itself, because it’d be denying the struggles that different groups of people have gone through, and are still going through, to try to achieve legal and cultural equality.

However, there is a problem when the book is aimed at readers who may not be old enough to understand that, because something is in a book, and is said by a “goodie” character, that doesn’t make it right.  This book seems to be being marketed at readers aged between around 11 and 15, but I can imagine a “good” reader of 9 or 10 enjoying it.  I don’t know what the answer to this is.  I find it quite upsetting to hear that people are saying that children shouldn’t read classics by the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mark Twain, or even To Kill A Mockingbird.  Once you start censoring people’s reading, and banning books – not that it would actually be possible to ban books of which there are so many copies in circulation – then you’re on a slippery slope.  We’ve moved on from those days, and I don’t think we want to go back there.  On the other hand, I started reading the Little House books when I can’t have been more than about 7, and, whilst I honestly can’t remember what I thought about the infamous “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” comment made by Ma Ingalls when I first read it, there obviously are very serious potential problems about a child of that age taking that sort of thing in.

I don’t know what the answer is.  However, as far as this book goes, it is only that one paragraph; and there are other books which are far more appropriate examples for a debate over all this.  It does strike me, though, that there are no black characters in the book, which seems very odd given that it’s set in Baltimore.  In fact, I didn’t get much sense of Baltimore at all: it could have been set in any East Coast American city, South or North.  Then again, part of the theme of the book is that Joan/Janet doesn’t get to meet many people, or to see much of the world.  And it is a children’s book.  Sorry, a “young adult” book!   It’s not fair to expect it to be like a book aimed at adults.  Am I an adult?  Yes, I am – I forget that sometimes!

Anyway, it’s worth a go.  It does have a lot of the old-style North American girls’ book in it, and minus the preachiness.  It’s not going to become a classic, but it’s not bad, and it’s just a bit different.




Great American Railroad Journeys – BBC 2


Despite currently being somewhat traumatised by hearing Donald Trump inform Piers Morgan that he was friends with Ed Glazer (there are some things you would really rather not know, and that’s one of them), I love the United States and I particularly love American history.  And I love Michael Portillo’s railway programmes.  It’s interesting how some people who are so annoying as politicians can be great in other guises – think Ed Balls in Strictly Come Dancing, as another example.   We haven’t actually had an awful lot of history from Michael in this series so far – although we have had food, rowing, fountain pens and various other things.  And we have had numerous references to the close ties between our two countries, which has been greatly appreciated – although the industrial espionage involved in Francis Cabot Lowell copying Lancastrian textile machine designs for use in Lowell, Massachusetts was rather less appreciated!  But we have had some history – and it’s said some of the best and the worst about the early days of the United States.

Massachusetts is, of course, home to Plimoth Rock, where the Mayflower landed.  The whole idea of the Pilgrim Fathers as the “founding myth” of America leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy, but that’s another story.  Another American legend, and one which actually is accurate, is the “Boston Tea Party”; and we saw Michael visit the site where that took place, and enjoy a historical re-enactment involving throwing imitations chests of tea into Boston harbour.  It was a terrible waste of good tea, but point taken – no taxation without representation.  Then on to Concord.  Concord, Lexington, Paul Revere’s Ride – there’s another American story which is both accurate and a legend.

So – the Revolution.  It’s always a bit weird for British historians to get their heads round, because we’re the ones cast as the baddies; and Michael was obviously feeling that, especially with all the comments about Tory spies 🙂 .  The way round it is usually to remember that the regime they were rebelling against wasn’t exactly representative of the people of Britain either – this was over half a century before even the very limited Reform Act of 1832.  And it is all genuinely stirring and inspirational.  I even feel quite inspired every time I read that chapter in one of the Little House books about the Fourth of July party, when they make the speeches and we’re told that Laura and Carrie both know the Declaration of Independence off by heart!  When I went to the National Archives in Washington, and saw original copies (there’s something wrong with the expression “original copies”, but never mind) of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (yes, I do know that the actual signing took place in Philadelphia, not Boston, but it’s all on the same theme), I really got quite emotional.  There’s something very special about it.  It’s very moving.  It really makes you feel something.

But then you remember that – quite apart from the lack of rights granted to women – slavery wasn’t abolished.  And that part of the reason for the discontent in Puritanical Boston was that Britain had agreed to full religious toleration for Catholics in what’s now the province of Quebec, ceded to Britain by France after the Seven Years’ War.  The Salem Witch Trials, which took place eighty years before the Boston Tea Party, are a sobering reminder of how dangerous Puritanical religious extremism can be.  Obviously it wasn’t just in Massachusetts that witch trials took place, but they were perhaps more closely linked to Puritan extremism there than they were in the Old World.  It was encouraging to see historical re-enactments teaching people about the dangers of witch hunts in Salem, though.  We could do with something like that here.  My blood boils every time I see one of the “Witch Way” buses – which is quite often, because their route, between Manchester city centre and the Pendle area, goes within a few hundred yards of my house – with silly pictures of broomsticks and pointy hats painted on them.  Ten people were executed as a result of the Pendle Witch Trials: it wasn’t a bloody fairy story.

So, that was the good, the bad … and we also got the rather weird, although it wasn’t gone into in all its glorious detail.   The visit to Concord actually missed out the battlefield, but did include the former home of Louisa M Alcott, best known as the author of Little Women … which was recently serialised (again) on TV.  Jo and Laurie were not meant for each other, OK!  Lay off Amy.  Jo turned Laurie down, so he was quite entitled to marry someone else.  OK, back to the point – the involvement of Louisa M Alcott’s dad in reform movements.  He was actually involved largely in the … fringe movements, for lack of a better way of putting it.  No eating potatoes because they grow downwards into the soil rather than bursting out of it.  No hot baths.  No tea!  No coffee and no alcohol either, but, seriously, how can you expect people to live without tea 🙂 ?   However, on a rather more mainstream level, the Alcotts were very involved with Abolitionism.  And the Reform movement in both Britain and America in the nineteenth century is, in its own way, as inspiring as the Revolution.  Abolitionism of course, but there were other aspects of it as well.  Think Josephine Butler. Think Elizabeth Fry.

And think John McEnroe.  No, he’s got nothing to do with either Michael Portillo or Bronson Alcott 🙂 , but he did make an amazing speech on Saturday, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in response to the furore surrounding Tennys Sandgren’s social media activity.  In it, he spoke about how the likes of Gottfried von Cramm, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King, people who were not only great tennis players but who also fought against the injustices of the world, and how people like them stood up for what they believed in.  He made the very good point that a lot of “tweeting” and so on goes on these days, but not so much actually getting out there and getting things done.   We’re all guilty of that.  Think of the Chartists.  The Suffragettes.  And people like the Rochdale Pioneers.

OK, I have now wandered well away from New England, and back to England.  But New England is an inspirational place.  And so is wonderful Eastern Canada, where Michael will be heading next – one of my favourite parts of the world.  I am so jealous of Michael Portillo for having this job!   If he ever feels like giving it up …   .  I’d even wear those horrible brightly-coloured clothes if that was part of the deal 🙂 .

Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini


If the President of the United States leaves office mid-term, for whatever reason, the Vice President automatically takes over.  They may well turn out to be considerably worse.  Obviously 😉 I’m referring to the events of April 1865: this book is sub-titled “A novel of John Wilkes Booth”.

The style of writing leaves something to be desired.  It sometimes comes close to that sickly over-sentimental style that’s much more often found in American books that British books, and someone really ought to tell the editor that the plural of “beau” is “beaux”, not “beaus” (have they never read Gone With The Wind?!  Surely everyone’s read it at least a dozen times 😉 !!), but the actual story is fascinating.

Unless you go right back to Roman times, assassins are usually people not known to anyone outside their own circles, but John Wilkes Booth was quite a celebrity.  His name would have been well-known to anyone in Washington society, and to many other people too, certainly those with access to the world of theatre.  He was a bit of a pin-up, as dashing, good-looking actors always are.  And he was from arguably the greatest American theatrical dynasty of the day.  His father was a famous actor, first in Britain and then in America, his brother Junius was also an actor, and his brother Edwin – whom I first came across just over thirty years ago, as a minor character in John Jakes’s wonderful Heaven and Hell – is often described as the best American actor of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, he was involved with, and possibly secretly engaged to, Lucy Lambert Hale, who was one of Washington’s most popular belles, the daughter of a leading Republican, and had admirers (beaux, with an x!) including Robert Lincoln, the son of the president.

So not your usual sort of modern assassin.  Well, insofar is there is one.  The book concentrates mainly on various women connected with him – his mother, his sister Asia, his sweetheart Lucy, and Mary Surratt, at whose boarding house the conspirators met and who became the first women executed by the federal government.  It starts with his parents’ story, which reads like a Hollywood film script on its own.  His father, a famous London-based actor, left his wife and child and ran off to America with his mistress.   They had several children, of whom John Wilkes was one, and then it all came out that they weren’t really married and that his father had left a wife back in England!   Eventually, Booth senior and his first wife were divorced, and Booth’s parents married, but it was all a right scandal.  And there was also considerable sibling rivalry between the brothers, Edwin being by far the best actor.

From there, though, very little is said about John Wilkes Booth’s life until he got involved with Lucy Hale, and then it’s all from her viewpoint.  There’s no real effort to explain why he decided to take such a drastic step.  The original plan was actually to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners, which would have been pretty drastic in itself, but, with the war all but over, it was decided to assassinate him instead.  The book makes references to his love of the South, but they’re all rather vague and superficial, and not at all satisfactory.  He wasn’t exactly the most obvious of assassins.  It would be far easier to understand Lincoln being assassinated by someone from the Deep South, the fire-eating South, imbued with genuine notions of the Glorious Cause, probably someone who’d lost relatives and friends, and maybe their home and money as well.  Or someone from a poor area of the upcountry, who felt that they had nothing to lose.

Why John Wilkes Booth?  He didn’t even live in the Confederacy.  He’d spent some time in Virginia, but his home was Maryland, one of the four (five, once West Virginia was admitted to the Union),Southern states within the Union.  The whole issue of the Upper South is interesting.  Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee, and North Carolina can probably be counted as the Upper South too, seceded.  Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri didn’t.  A lot of divided loyalties.  When you think of the Southern outlaws in the immediate post-bellum years, you think first of Frank and Jesse James – from Missouri.  Mary Surratt was from Maryland.  Washington itself was – and still is – a Southern city.  Richmond and Washington are only about 100 miles apart  It really is ridiculous that the two capitals were so close together, and both so close to the border.  I suppose they weren’t going to move the federal capital, but why not leave the Confederate capital at Montgomery, where it was before the Upper South seceded?  Very odd decision.

Anyway!  Nothing really to try to explain why Booth did what he did.  And so much else about him was missing.  Mary Surratt’s deep Catholic faith was clearly shown, but there was nothing about Booth’s own possible Catholic links.  Some people at the time tried to make out that it was some sort of Papist plot.  OK, obviously that was a load of nonsense, but the fact that people were speaking in terms which belong more to the 1680s to the 1860s says a lot about attitudes at the time – think the horrendous Elsie books! – and you’d think it would have merited a mention.  Even more strangely, nothing’s said about the other women he was supposedly involved with.  We see Lucy, after the assassination, reading in the papers that he had a mistress, and carried photos of various actresses around with him, but that’s the first we hear of it.  Lucy ends up feeling that she didn’t really know him at all.  The reader unfortunately ends up feeling exactly the same.

Having said all of that, it’s worth reading this just to get a better understanding of John Wilkes Booth’s background, because it’s so crazy that this matinee idol type, member of a leading theatrical dynasty, was the one to carry out this act that, in addition to being utterly horrific because all murder is horrific, had such a huge impact on the future of America.  We’ll never know if Reconstruction would have gone any better under Lincoln than it did under Johnson – and the idea was to assassinate Johnson as well, but it didn’t happen – and Grant, but it’s hard to think that it could have gone much worse.    Booth shouted “Sic simper tyrannis!  The South is avenged!”.  Surely the South would have fared much better if Lincoln had lived.  Some sort of economic rebuilding would have been key: there are parts of the South which still haven’t recovered economically from the war, after over 150 years.  But we’ll never know now.

And, yes, if you remove a president, you get the vice president instead.  Worrying thought, that, isn’t it?

The Greatest Showman


This was entertaining, but, as far as telling the life story of Phineas Taylor Barnum goes, it fell a very long way wide of the mark. What a shame.  It really is a fascinating story, and I wish people wouldn’t make films (or write books) about real people if they’re not going to stick to the facts.

Oh, OK, the basic idea was there – the circus, the (to use the expression of the times) “freaks”, and the opposition from sections of the public and the media. But the hoaxes were badly watered down.  There was no mention of the old lady whom he claimed was George Washington’s nurse, or of the Feejee mermaid.  Claiming that someone was heavier than they were, or that they were of a different nationality, is hardly in the same league.  Maybe they were worried that the snowflake brigade might find things like the Joice Heth story, a true story, offensive?  I don’t know, but it felt as the point was being missed.

Some of it was just plain silly. There was a farcical scene in London, with a portrayal of Queen Victoria which seemed to belong in something like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Beefeaters wandering around inside Buckingham Palace!    He was given a fictional business partner.  And there was a bizarre storyline which claimed that, rather than abandoning the tour because of concerns about over-commercialisation, Jenny Lind packed it in because she fancied Barnum and had the needle because he wasn’t interested!

And, before they even got as far as him entering showbusiness, they’d invented a tale whereby he first met Charity, his future wife, when he was a tailor’s delivery boy and she was the daughter of a New York society family, and they were childhood sweethearts who ran off together, and he was always desperate to prove to her snooty parents and their friends that he was good enough for her. Oh, it was quite a romantic idea, but unfortunately it was largely the product of someone’s imagination!   And there was nothing about his involvement in politics and philanthropy, which was a shame.  Yes, all right, I appreciate that not everyone would have wanted a lecture on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the middle of a film about a circus 🙂 (although I so would!), but that whole aspect of his life and character was missing.

It was entertaining, though.  The music was great – although I kept expecting to hear the music from the Barnum musical instead.  It is really weird watching something about Barnum without anyone singing “Join the circus like you wanted to when you were a kid”.  And the stories of the circus performers, some of whom did really exist, were genuinely touching.  Even now, you get these programmes like Embarrassing Bodies, which come uncomfortably close to treating anyone with some sort of physical difference as a “freak”.  In the mid 19th century, life didn’t offer very much to people with, say, dwarfism or hirsutism, and Barnum’s circus did offer those people an opportunity, which was certainly much better than the sort of horrific freak shows that “the Elephant Man” was made part of.  And there was a storyline about a romance between the fictional white business partner and a fictional mixed-race trapeze artist, which was very nice, but, if they’d wanted to make the point about racial attitudes at the time, they could have stuck to the actual facts and show Barnum speaking out against slavery.  It came later than the period covered by the film, but he did make a well-known and rather touching speech about how all human souls are human souls, regardless of which body they inhabit.

It’s entertainment – which Barnum would approved of. And, hey, he might well have approved of the fact that it’s all a bit of a swizz (to use an old-fashioned term!), in the name of entertainment.  But it feels as if someone’s written the story that they want and then used the name of a well-known historical figure to guarantee popular interest and therefore box office success.  It’s not uncommon for films, books and TV dramas to do that, but it isn’t half annoying 🙂 .







Mercy Street – Drama


It’s pretty much dead on thirty years since I first came across Dorothea Dix and her work as Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union side during the American Civil War. Oh dear, that makes me sound really old, doesn’t it?  I was only a young kid at the time, honestly!  I took Love and War, the second book in the wonderful North and South trilogy by John Jakes, with me on a school trip to Paris during the Whit half term week of 1987.  Dorothea Dix appeared in that when Virgilia Hazard, the sister of one of the main characters, became an Army nurse.  Thirty years.  I wish that thought hadn’t occurred to me!

Dorothea Dix appeared briefly in this too – but only early on. However, several of the main characters were also “real life” nurses during the American Civil War – Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, the New England abolitionist on whose books the series is based, and Emma Green, the Southern belle with mixed loyalties, were both real people (although Mary was rather older and less glamorous than she’s presented in this), and Anne Hastings, the British nurse who served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, is based on a real person named Anne Reading.

The hospital in which it’s set was real as well – the Mansion House Hospital in the beautiful town of Alexandria, Virginia, where Robert E Lee grew up (although filming took place in nearby Petersburg, which looks more 19th century than Alexandria). I stayed in Alexandria whilst visiting Washington DC in 2009.  It’s just seven miles from Washington.  Had Maryland seceded – of the eight states classed as the Upper South, four joined the Confederacy and four remained part of the Union – then the Union capital would have been surrounded by Confederate territory.  There were many people in the Upper South with mixed loyalties, and the situation in Alexandria, a Confederate town occupied by Union forces little more than a month after the war broke out and a destination for many escaped slaves, was complex.

I started off by thinking that all the characters were rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. Mary insisted that the war was about emancipation, and was reluctant to treat Confederate soldiers.  Emma went wandering round the hospital in a white crinoline, clutching a parasol.  Many characters obviously both felt that they were on the side of a Glorious Cause, and that everyone on the other side was a baddie.

However, it became apparent that the whole idea was that people started off feeling that way but soon came to realise that life and war are not that simple, and that most people were just caught up in a terrible situation way beyond their control. A Union doctor, from a slaveholding family, pointed out that blood was neither blue nor grey (/gray) but red: it was a bit preachy, but hospital dramas do inevitably tend to be a bit preachy.  One of the black characters had more medical knowledge and ability than most of the white characters, but didn’t always even dare to show it: presumably, in time, the prejudiced white characters will come to respect and admire him.

Many of the all-time great historical novels, films and TV series are set during wartime, and it’s always difficult for them to strike the right balance between showing the horrors of war and having the soap opera/period drama element too.  That’s particularly difficult when the setting is a hospital.  This was sometimes a bit simplistic, sometimes a bit stereotypical and sometimes a bit preachy, but it really wasn’t bad.  And it’s been so long since there’s been an American Civil War (I’m actually not very keen on that term, because I don’t see how Union versus Confederacy can be classed as a “civil war”, but it seems to be the generally accepted term, and the PC brigade go berserk if anyone uses the far more historically accurate “War Between The States”) drama on TV.  Sadly, this was cancelled after the second series, but that still gives us two series to watch.  I shall be keeping on watching 🙂 .

Roots – BBC 4


Word PressConsidering that the original mini-series of Roots is one of the best-known and most-watched TV series of all times, I was expecting this new version to be making headlines; but it seems to be slipping under the radar. I know it’s on BBC 4, but surely the days of people only watching things that are on BBC 1 or ITV (1) are over. I’d be interested to know how much attention it received in the US when it was shown there, which I believe was last May/June.

I’ve read the book, but I’m not old enough to have watched the original series. Hooray – there’s actually something I’m too young for!!   There’s been a lot of controversy about the story since then. For one thing, it’s been admitted that some sections were copied from an earlier book about slavery. For another thing, it’s supposed to be the true story of Alex Haley’s ancestors, but it’s now known that there are a lot of inaccuracies, whether intentional, unintentional or a bit of both, in terms of genealogical records not matching what’s in the book. It’s unfortunate, because, even if the story isn’t an accurate telling of the history of one family, and even if some of it isn’t even Alex Haley’s own work, it’s still an accurate depiction of the sort of things that did happen to many people, and it really drew attention to a subject which at that time hadn’t really been explored on screen.

Obviously times have changed since then, and the new series cannot possibly have the same effect as the original because it isn’t a ground-breaker in the way that that was. There are mixed views about films and TV series which address slavery, as there are with those which address, for example, the Holocaust, or even countries which have spent many years under foreign domination. Some people feel that they’re important from an educational viewpoint and that these are subjects of which awareness needs to be maintained. Others feel that they have a negative effect and encourage views of certain sections of the population as victims: Snoop Dogg has criticised both Roots and Twelve Years A Slave for that reason. Anyway, everyone has their own opinions on the subject, and I’m inclined to go with the view that they’re educational. History is important. You can’t ignore the bad stuff.

So. On to the new series … and it’s strange, because it’s doesn’t feel like an American series at all. Well, the early scenes wouldn’t, because they were set in The Gambia, but they didn’t feel like they were set in The Gambia because most of the cast were speaking in South African accents. When we actually got to the Virginia, the plantation owners were speaking in cut-glass upper-crust English accents – surely not very likely, in the 1770s – and the overseer was speaking in an Irish accent!   The overseer on the next plantation was speaking in a Scottish accent. There are actually a whole load of British actors in the cast – including Malachi Kirby, who played Nancy Carter’s dodgy ex-fiancé in EastEnders, doing an absolutely superb job in the lead role of Kunta Kinte. That’s another reason I’d expect the series to be getting more attention here than it is doing. Oh well.

Some if it is literally very dark – I appreciate that some scenes are meant to depict night-time, or the insides of ill-lit buildings, but there are times when it’s difficult to see what was going on. That’s my only real criticism of it, though. A lot of it is figuratively speaking very dark, but it has to be. But, when people say that it’s just presenting certain sections of the population of victims, they miss one of the main points of Roots – that Kunta Kinte never forgets who he is, and never allows his mind and spirit to be shackled, despite all the horrific things that are done to him. There’s more than one message to be taken from this story.

It’s a difficult subject, and, in the current political climate, some people will seek to use any difficult subject for their own political ends – and well done to the History Channel for not doing that, for just telling the story. I can’t compare it to the original because I haven’t seen the original, and it’s difficult to compare it to the book because it’s difficult to compress a very long and complex book into six hours of television, but this series deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting. It hasn’t even been advertised on BBC 1 or BBC 2. Strange.   And rather sad, because I think a lot more people might have watched it had they known it was on. And it deserves that.